WASHINGTON, DC – Much to the dismay of the government in Addis Ababa, “Zone 9” has become a household name in Ethiopia. Since 2012, this small group of journalists-turned-online activists has used social media to campaign for political freedoms and civil liberties in their country. The group’s success – measured, for example, by the flood of likes and comments on its Facebook page – has come in spite of government efforts to silence the writers, including the arrest of six members in 2014 on trumped-up terrorism charges.
Ethiopia’s government is not alone in seeking to consolidate political power by restricting what citizens say online. Across Africa, governments are enacting legislation to restrict Internet access and outlaw criticism of elected officials. Digital campaigners face myriad censorship tactics, including “Border Gateway Protocol” attacks, “HTTP throttling,” and “deep packet inspections.”
The irony, of course, is that censorship rarely quiets the disaffected. Rather than quelling dissent, government intervention only inspires more people to take their grievances to WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms, where Africans are increasingly challenging corrupt governments, exposing rigged elections, and demanding to be heard.
At the moment, however, few of Africa’s leaders are listening. Leaders in nine of the 18 African countries that held elections in 2016 placed some level of restriction on the Internet to limit dissent. Four days prior to Uganda’s presidential vote in February, President Yoweri Museveni cut access to mobile payment services and social media sites. In August and September, Gabon’s president, Ali Bongo, seeking to project an atmosphere of calm to the international community, shut down Internet access overnight. Then in December, officials in Democratic Republic of the Congo ordered an Internet shutdown the day before President Joseph Kabila was scheduled to leave office, thereby quashing online dissent when he refused to step down.
Internet blackouts like these violate people’s human rights and undermine democratic processes. Last year, the United Nations Human Rights Council approved a resolution affirming that, “rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression.”
Most African governments try to justify Internet embargoes by arguing that the restrictions are necessary to ensure public safety and security. Museveni, for example, claimed that blocking Internet access was the only way to protect visiting heads of state during his swearing-in ceremony. But he presented no evidence linking social media accessibility and security in Uganda, or anywhere else. According to Access Now, an international advocacy group for digital rights, people typically feel less secure without the Internet, because they cannot access information or connect with friends and family in times of uncertainty.
With several key African elections coming up, Internet shutdowns are again on the horizon. In Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe, who is 93, is expected to run for his eighth term in mid-2018, a government-led crackdown appears inevitable. For decades, Mugabe has relied on intimidation and violence to stifle political dissent. It is not surprising, then, that he has already begun taking a hostile approach to online activism. Last year, his government shut down the Internet in the middle of political protests, and vowed to arrest anyone caught generating or sharing “abusive or subversive material on social media.”
But citizens are not helpless. While governments issue orders to cut off Internet access, only telecommunications companies have the ability to hit the “kill switch.” That is why Africa’s bloggers and online activists must work more closely with investors and shareholders of communications firms to convince them to stand up for democracy and human rights by resisting illiberal government directives.
Moreover, civil-society groups, the African Union, and the UN should do more to condemn national legislation that aims to normalize restrictive Internet policies. Just as it launched a model law on access to information in 2013, the African Union should provide new guidance to states on how to safeguard the right to assemble and express views online.
Finally, new continent-wide measures are needed to ensure that Africans’ online rights are recognized and respected by their governments. Although the UN Human Rights Council’s resolution to protect online freedoms is not binding, it offers a starting point for ensuring that governments allow citizens to use the Internet as a tool for maximizing political participation.
Such interventions are needed now more than ever. The Kenyan, Zimbabwean, and Ethiopian legislatures are currently considering laws that would permit significantly greater government control over Internet access. Last year, Tanzania adopted legislation that has already been used to charge individuals with crimes who have criticized President John Magufuli on social media.
Whether governments bar citizens from gathering in public, signing petitions, or accessing the Internet and posting on social media makes no difference. All such measures are designed to strip citizens of their rights. The battle for freedom, as Zone 9 has shown, is no less real when the public square is the digital domain.
Kizito Byenkya is a senior program specialist at the Open Society Human Rights Initiative. Alex Humphrey is a policy associate at the Open Society Foundations.
By Kizito Byenkya and Alex Humphrey